THE LAST TO KNOW

Yesterday when I headed out for my swim at the Richmond Plunge, I discovered two big trucks parked in the driveway blocking my exit. I’d already seen a third large truck parked out back and wondered how I was going to maneuver my car around it. Big changes are happening around here, but before I go into all that, let me tell you how it used to be. In A Patchwork Memoir I wrote:

It’s nearly midnight, and Ella and I are watching a “Beevis and Butthead” sketch on Saturday Night Live, our mouths strenuously agape. Miserly with her unwaxed, Ella is trying to wedge a length of dental floss so short she can hardly get a grip on it between two particularly tight molars. I, prodigal with my cinnamon waxed, am unspooling a great hunk from around my middle fingers as I go while my fingertips turn blue.

Since I’ve got a redhead’s temper (though I try to keep it under wraps) and Ella is absent-minded, I suggest we call ourselves “Peevis and Puffhead.” “But I get mad too,” she protests. “OK. How about ‘Peevis and Puff Adder?’” I amend.

“Nurch,” we say synchronously (which has evolved, in the unaccountable way language does, from “Buenas noches”) as we head for our respective beds.

In the middle of the night I’m awakened by voices outside my window. I peek around the drapes behind the head of my bed and see a small U-Haul truck in the driveway—and three unfamiliar people. It occurs to me that they may mean to rob us, but I’m too tired to bother about it. I put in my foam earplugs so their voices won’t disturb me…and go back to sleep, figuring if they try to steal my mattress, I’ll feel it.

In the morning Ella tells me new neighbors moved into apartment number three in the dead of night. All the apartments around us have stood empty—well, mostly—for years, except for Gina’s across the hall.   I say, “mostly,” because our landlord occasionally inhabits one on the rare occasions he comes to town. “Oh no!” I groan. “No more privacy!” Jobie and I won’t be able to whoop and snort and caterwaul when we do our sounding. And Ella and I won’t be able to sing our mock operatic duets, as stridently off-key as we possibly can. The walls are so thin, when Ella put up a knickknack shelf years ago, the nail went right through the wall and skewered the tampax box in the neighbor’s medicine cabinet.

Whenever our landlord shows up, we know he’s hatching a plot—and that whatever it is, we’ll be the last to know. One summer morning a couple of years ago, I was sitting drawing in a scanty nightgown, with the back door open so what breeze there was could waft in. Suddenly, I saw through the window a burly man climbing our fire escape and swinging his leg over the railing of our small deck. I hurled myself at the back door—and slammed it and locked it in his face.

“We’re the something-or-others!” he cried in broken English.

“Get off my deck!” I threatened through the door.

“But we’re the something-or-others!” he cried again.

“GET OFF MY DECK!” I howled.

So he did.

Soon I heard sounds suggesting that somebodies were painting the exterior of our building. But I didn’t venture out till they took their lunch break. Then I saw they’d spattered white paint over all the flowering bushes and plants in my deck garden. What he’d wanted to do, it dawned on me belatedly, was cover my garden with a tarp.

I MEET MAURICE SENDAK

 

As I said in my previous blog, it was my friend Ella who told me that Maurice Sendak had been invited to give a week-long lecture series at U. C. Berkeley, where she works. In A Patchwork Memoir I wrote:

The night of his first lecture, Wheeler Auditorium was bursting—people were squeezed into every corner and mobbed outside the open doors. I didn’t know why it was so jam-packed because I’d never read the copyright date of Where the Wild Things Are—or of any of his other books, for that matter. I didn’t know that these college kids had grown up on his stories.

Ella had even managed to get us invitations to the reception for him afterwards in the Bancroft Library. As we walked over after the lecture, I heard Mr. Sendak behind me, telling his companions how hungry he was.

In the reception room I helped myself to a paper plate of appetizers. As I ate, I noticed that he was advancing toward the buffet table by millimeters only. As soon as he’d finish talking with one person, another would block his path. So I filled a plate with hors d’oeuvres for him and took it over, then stood back and listened to what he had to say to his crowd of admirers. When I was satisfied he wouldn’t bite—and there was a momentary lull—I finally spoke to him.

I told him I’d sent a story around to publishers and kept getting form rejection letters—no personal notes even. I said I thought kids would like it, but had begun to wonder if it was somehow threatening to adults. “Ah!” he said knowingly, “You have to be tricky to get past them.” So I asked him if he’d be willing to read my story and suggest any changes I might make. He graciously said yes.

The afternoon I delivered my manuscript to his hotel, I was a nervous wreck—I’d spent the previous days trying to write a cover letter, and now that he was about to leave, I was afraid I’d miss him altogether. When I handed the manuscript over to the hotel clerk, he gave it to a bellboy to take to Mr. Sendak’s room. I thought there was a remote chance he might read my story that night and call me.

But I never heard from him. Months passed, and I began to wonder if he’d ever received my manuscript—what if the bellboy had taken it to the wrong room? I called the hotel to see if my manila envelope had ended up in some dead-letter bin. Then I wrote Mr. Sendak himself (how I got his address shall remain my secret). I sent him a postcard with two options for him to check, including “Manuscript? What manuscript?” Which is what he checked.

So I sent him another copy along with a couple of my illustrations, including the one above. More months went by. Figuring he hadn’t liked my story and was too kind-hearted to tell me, I swallowed hard and stopped hoping. Then one December afternoon I arrived home, routinely punched the messages button on my answering machine, and heard an unfamiliar voice through static. I thought it was a wrong number and headed to the fridge. But when I heard the words “twin princes,” I froze in my tracks.

As the static cleared, I heard Mr. Sendak apologizing and explaining that he was just now recovering from a long illness. A few days later a note came on his letterhead for the Sundance Children’s Theater; he’d written me, ”Prince Beauregard is a wonder! Very well told—fresh and smart and I do not even mind the happy ending!” At the end he added, “I return the art—I like them too! No—I’m not just being nice—you are good!”

I wrote him back, “When I delivered my manuscript to you at the hotel, I felt I was nearing the end of a long journey. Thank you for making the ending a happy one. Your appreciation of my work is deeply, deeply felt.”

I’d waited half a lifetime for a father’s—or at least a father figure’s—approval, and at long last I had it.

Prince Beauregard and the Beast Baby

MAJOR PLAYER

If I’m going to write about my life, I feel it’s only good manners to introduce the major players too, starting with my best—and oldest—friend, Ella.

“We’re ‘housemates,'” I tell people because “roommates” sounds too collegial. And we do live in what was once a house though eventually it was converted into several apartments, a few of which have stood empty over the years.

We live in an ideal spot—on a shady residential street a half a block from the U.C. Berkeley campus, an area we couldn’t afford in our dreams if it weren’t for rent control. Despite our proximity to downtown, we have deer foraging in our back yard, raccoons climbing the coast live oak overhanging our driveway, and the occasional nocturnal sighting of an opossum or skunk.

Only four or five blocks away is the apartment where I lived with my mom and brother after we moved to California from Minnesota, when I was fourteen. (Which reminds me of the proverb, “Bloom where you’re planted,” but more about that another day.)

One afternoon in my senior year of high school, a friend from art class and I took sketchbooks and charcoal pencils on a leisurely exploration of the neighborhood. And, to our amazement, we happened upon a Normandy village that looked like something straight out of medieval France. A veteran of World War I built it as an homage when he came home from the war, I later learned. Now I live just up the block and pass it on my daily walks. So does Ella on her way to work—as a curriculum coordinator at the university.

In a way, I suppose we were fated to live here because we met through the University of California—on the Aurelia, a ship that was taking us to Spain to study at the University of Madrid our junior year of college. She was from U. C. Santa Barbara, and I was from U. C. Berkeley.

Serendipitously, it was she who, many years later, informed me that Maurice Sendak had just agreed to give a series of guest lectures at Cal. She even wangled us an invitation to the reception afterwards so I could meet the man who’d inspired me to write and illustrate children’s books.

CATASTROPHE

I’ve never been good at small talk. I take more naturally to big talk, if by “big” you’re referring to the things that loom large in your life. So it seems fitting to begin my blog with the biggest event of my early childhood, which I describe in A Patchwork Memoir:

Both of my parents were in the Army during World War II, and when I was a toddler we lived in a Quonset hut—university housing for ex-servicemen and women going to college on the G. I. Bill. One day when I was two and a half, I was pushing my six-month-old brother around in his stroller while my mother was busy in the next room. The way she always told it, she could hear us laughing and shouting with high spirits. Then suddenly she heard a scream and came running—and found the stroller overturned and my brother lying with his cheek against the small floor heater. He’d suffered a third-degree burn, it turned out, and had to have plastic surgery—then and again when he was two and a half.

The second time around, the doctors cut a square patch of skin from his belly and grafted it onto his cheek, which left him with a brown scar covering the side of his face and a flap of skin over the corner of his eye that pulled it down. My parents were only allowed to observe him through a window during visiting hours. His screams were more than my mother could bear. She walked out the first time and never went back, leaving my father to make trips to the hospital alone. The doctors said my brother tore at his bandages, disturbing the graft—so they didn’t get the results they’d hoped for. When my parents finally took him home, he wouldn’t let anyone hold him but my father and, sadly, he’d lost all the speech he’d learned.

Though I have no memory of the accident, I was told from as far back as I can remember that I left the stroller by the heater—may have even overturned it, playing too rambunctiously—and forever after that, I felt responsible for my brother’s burn.

The lesson I absorbed from this experience was that even my most unwitting mistake could have catastrophic and irreversible consequences. It wasn’t until well into my adulthood that I learned there was more to the story.

SHIPWRECKED

“Seely dreamed she was floating in an ocean with other survivors of a shipwreck. They were strewn out across the water as far as she could see—little flecks of orange, the color of their life jackets. Only hers had gaudy rainbow stripes and was noticeably waterlogged. It seemed to be losing buoyancy by the moment. She yanked off a huge tag sewn into the front seam in order to see it better. ‘Dry-Clean Only,’ it read.”

This passage is from the opening of a short story I began years ago and never finished. I mostly never do—my short stories, at least. Maybe because they’re too autobiographical—yes, I really had the above dream—and my own life still feels so unresolved. Or maybe they were never meant to be short stories in the first place, but chapters in the larger story of my life. I’ve thought about writing a memoir for many years now, sat down to work from time to time, but before I’ve ventured very far, I’ve always gotten bogged down in a quicksand of grief.

This is the beginning of A Patchwork Memoir, the autobiography I wrote twenty years ago. As I’ve mentioned before, it was composed entirely of vignettes. But now I’m setting out to weave my past and present together—to collaborate with my younger selves—and call it Callie’s Ragbag. Why such a curious title? you may wonder. Probably the first lines of A Patchwork Memoir explain it best:

“In boxes, bags, and bulging file drawers, I’ve stowed away my writing: stories, scripts, letters, dreams, and diaries. Out of all these bits and pieces, I wonder if I could stitch together a patchwork of my life.”

A MATTER OF SURVIVAL

The two things in life that I’m most grateful for are penicillin and the internet. Why? Well, I was born shortly after penicillin got wide distribution—a close shave because without it, according to my pediatrician, I would never have survived infancy. As for the internet, that’s going to take a bit more explaining:

If you’ve clicked “about” (the author) on my navigation bar, you’re aware that I knew from the time I first read Where the Wild Things Are in my twenties that I wanted to write and illustrate children’s books. You also know that I wasn’t able to produce anything at first—and why in my mid-thirties I finally was.

When I showed my first book, Somebody Grab That Dog, to the children’s book buyer at A Clean, Well-Lighted Place bookstore, she called it a “strong little book—a winner.” Following her advice, I submitted the dummy to Greenwillow Press. They responded, “While we like the drawings and the refrain, the story is a little too contrived for our list.” Months later I would read an interview with a Greenwillow editor who stated categorically that, “chic and clever books are not for children.” Excuse me? I sent her a note saying I strongly disagreed about “clever”—that among my favorite writers as a child was Dr. Seuss. Her answer, which I assume was supposed to be encouraging, was that Mary Poppins was submitted seventeen times before it was accepted.

In the decades that followed I would write over eighty children’s stories, not one of which was ever accepted by a publisher—even with Maurice Sendak’s endorsement! He called Prince Beauregard and the Beast Baby “fresh and smart—a wonder!” and added that he didn’t even mind the happy ending. Nevertheless, it was passed over by an editor at Harper Collins because “the happy ending watered down the love between the brothers.” When I submitted three more stories to her, I was told curtly that ”none of them worked.”

And so, over the years, the rejection letters kept coming fast and furiously—though no longer with any personal remarks from editors. And if you’re thinking, at this point in my narrative, that my stories must not be much good, maybe I should mention that the children’s book buyer at Cody’s Books called the children’s book publishing world a “vault” that was virtually impossible to break into.

But the truth is there was another obstacle to my stories being published: most of them didn’t fit neatly into any category.

At the time, Harry Potter mania was sweeping across the country, and kids were lining up at midnight outside bookstores to get the latest novel in the series. When I sat down to write fairy tales for my eldest goddaughter to help her learn to read, I decided I wanted to create stories that would excite a younger audience’s imagination in the same way—that would make them eager to learn to read while actually teaching them to read. Which is to say that, like Dr. Seuss, I wanted to write a “trade book” that was also a “coded reader.” His Cat in the Hat teaches kids the individual letter sounds; I wanted to pick up where he left off and teach them the common letter combinations. And that was the genesis of The Poof! Academy I and II collections and The Adventures of Jix that followed.

So I consider myself supremely lucky, because not only did I survive infancy, but I lived into the age of the internet, when it’s now possible for undiscovered writers like me to self-publish their books and sell them online. “These are the days of miracles and wonders,” Paul Simon sings. Yes!

Somebody Grab That Dog

TOO INTIMATE?

Below is a journal entry I wrote a couple of years ago that marks the real beginning of my blob…er, blog. (Why do I keep making that typo?)

Yesterday, I was looking through old files on My Passport—the senior home of an old hard drive. When I came across A Patchwork Memoir, an autobiography I wrote many years ago, out of curiosity I glanced over the first chapter. But I could publish this, I realized incredulously. Because I’d convinced myself way back when that I couldn’t. It’s too disjointed, I’d decided—a motley assortment of vignettes like a homely patchwork quilt. Who writes a memoir like that? Besides, my memories of my own history are too general; I can’t recall enough detail to make for vivid narrative. And, anyway, wasn’t my memoir too intimate? I mean, how candid did I want to be? I certainly didn’t want to hurt anybody—or embarrass myself either. But being composed of self-contained vignettes, I understood suddenly, I could pick and choose from among them—reveal as little or as much as I cared to—and give A Patchwork Memoir a cohesion that only my contemporary perspective could provide.

Then this morning as I woke up and thought about it all, I felt a quickening—and knew exactly where I wanted to begin.

MY FIRST BLOG

Years ago I joined ARTS, a support group for women artists of all stripes—painters, sculptors, singers, dancers, composers, writers, etc. When one of the members said instead of journaling, she cartooned her days, I thought I’d try my hand at it.